The interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Texas A&M, José Luis Bermúdez, has resigned from his position effective July 31 after the university changed a black veteran journalist’s tenured position to a one-year, at-will contract. The dean said his continuous stay with the university will stoke unnecessary controversy which is unhealthy for the institution’s growth.
The university, for over 20 years, had closed its journalism department and stopped offering the course. But, this year it decided to revive its journalism program with the hiring of Kathleen McElroy, a veteran journalist with over 40 years of experience and former New York Times editor.
The situation took a drastic turn when McElroy claimed that the university had changed her tenured position offer to a one-year, at-will contract. The controversy intensified when it was revealed that the change came after concerns were raised about her race and her previous work at The New York Times, and her focus on race in her Ph.D. program.
Texas A&M released statements defending their actions, claiming that they initially offered a tenured full professor position but mutually agreed on a professor of practice role due to her industry experience. The university stated that they were open to further negotiation and discussion but learned about McElroy’s intention of rejecting the offer through media inquiries, as reported by inside higher ed.
This incident bears similarities to the past tenure controversy at the University of North Carolina involving journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. Jelani Cobb, dean of the Columbia University Journalism School, expressed concerns about the implications for academic freedom in journalism programs. Tracy Hammond, the Texas A&M Faculty Senate speaker, called for an explanation from university administrators to ensure decisions are based solely on academic merit.
The situation has raised concerns about the influence of politics and outside pressures on hiring and tenure processes. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) raised objections, stating that revoking McElroy’s employment offer due to objections from powerful political forces or donors violates the university’s First Amendment obligations.
The university has faced criticism and scrutiny from various stakeholders. In response, Texas A&M’s president, M. Katherine Banks, expressed regret over the negative media coverage and pledged to assess communication pathways during hiring processes to prevent a recurrence. Last week, Banks also said in a resignation letter that she would retire immediately, because “negative press has become a distraction” at the university.
The controversy also intersected with Texas’ DEI legislation, which bans conducting training or programs designed in reference to race, color, ethnicity, gender identity or sexual orientation. It remains unclear how exactly this legislation relates to McElroy’s situation.
Overall, this incident has ignited discussions about academic freedom, viewpoint diversity, and the need for transparent and unbiased hiring and tenure processes in journalism programs and academia at large. The university faces pressure to address the situation and reaffirm its commitment to these principles. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression has requested a substantive response from the university by a specified date.